Dead at Deadline!

In retrospect, I love the email subject line: "Dead at deadline."

The email came to me at 6:15 last night, just as I was getting ready to take my two teenagers out for dinner. It was from Joe, a publisher at a small weekly who, like many newspaper publishers, has become my good friend over the past 20 years.

Before I tell you more about the email, let's step back in time to yesterday afternoon when I mentioned to some folks in my office that I needed to come up with a topic for today's column. A couple of ideas were tossed around when, finally, I said, "Don't worry. Something will come up. It always does."

I just didn't know that "something" would be my friend, Joe.

I threw the Xbox remote to my daughter and said, "Take Zach on in a game of Tetris while I make a phone call."

After a few rings, Joe was on the other end of the line. It's funny how, after being in this business for so long, things like this don't seem nearly as frantic as they once did. We've all faced crises at deadlines, and we've all lived to tell the tale. But this was a tough one.

Seems there was a big storm yesterday that knocked out the power at Joe's paper for a while. When the lights came back on, Joe and his staff opened InDesign to finish laying out the pages. That's when the problem arose.

As Joe went to open the InDesign file he had been working on before the storm, the words "Cannot place this file. No filter found for requested operation" popped up on the screen. It might as well have said, "Danger, Will Robinson," because, just as in the old TV series "Lost in Space," Joe had a major problem on his hands.

He was, as he so eloquently penned, "Dead at deadline."

After a couple of decades as a consultant, I've learned a few important skills that help at times like these. The most important task at deadline is to get the paper out. Figuring out the exact cause of the problem can come later.

I remember a few years ago, I was training the staff at The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch when a pressman ran into the room shouting, "We need you now!"

It seems the plates were on the press, it was a few minutes past deadline, and there was one page that wouldn't go through the RIP (the processor that sends the files to the platemaker). We could have spent precious time trying to determine the cause of the problem. But no one was very interested in the cause. They just needed a plate. I made some adjustments to the PDF, sent it to the RIP, and we figured out the cause of the problem later.

Back to Joe's problem. We could figure out the cause of the issue later. Right now, we just needed to get those ads on his pages so the PDFs could go to the printer.

My first thought was to restart the computer. He had already done that, twice.

The first course of action is to get the easy stuff out of the way. After learning he had already tried restarting the computer, I suggested he go ahead and try creating PDFs from the pages, even though it was doubtful they could be used.

He did. And they couldn't be used. All of the ads were pixilated throughout the pages.

Next, since it seemed like an InDesign filter problem, I walked Joe through creating a "package" of the InDesign file, which he then sent to another computer. It was doubtful that two computers would have the same filter missing in InDesign.

You guessed it. When he opened the InDesign file on the other computer, Joe saw the same dire warning on the screen, "Cannot place this file. No filter found for requested operation."

What were the chances that two different computers would lose the same filter during a thunderstorm?

This had all taken place within about 15 minutes. My next idea was to walk Joe through the art of creating a Photoshop "action" that would take each of his ads and convert them to another format, perhaps TIFF or JPG.

That's when things got really interesting. Photoshop could not open the files. You guessed it. A different warning appeared, letting Joe know that the files were corrupt.

I know what you're thinking. What about the backup files? None. What about Time Machine (a built-in function on all Macs since 2008 that periodically "remembers" everything done on a computer and saves it for future use)? Joe's staff was working on Windows-based computers, so there was no Time Machine.

It wasn't the time for a lecture on backing up. It was deadline. And by now, 30 minutes had passed.

I asked Joe if he had the original InDesign files in which the ads were created. He did. I thought for a moment about replacing the original links with the InDesign files (you can place an InDesign file on another InDesign document), but there was too great a risk of font and link issues within those files.

Finally, I told Joe he had two choices. The first was to go with the pixilated PDF he was able to create. The second option, I explained, was to open each InDesign ad file, export them as PDF files, then hope for the best. Joe decided on the second option.

At 9:29 p.m., I received the following message from Joe: "It will truly be a good night, thanks to you. Paper transferred to printer with no errors. Thank You. Thank You. Thank You. Sorry I interrupted your dinner with the kids. I can't wait to buy you dinner at the next convention."

Yes, the kids and I did have dinner. I did most of my work with Joe while we drove to and from Abuelo's Mexican Restaurant. On the way to the restaurant, I apologized to my kids for being on the phone during the drive.

My daughter, who doesn't miss much, remarked, "I noticed you were taking the long way to Abuelo's."

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